Commentary for Advent I 29 November 2020
This week’s texts: Isaiah 64.1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, and Mark 13.24-37.
By Father Doug Woods
Hello again! It’s a grey day today—typical November. It snowed on Sunday—10 cm.—and some of it’s still here. It’s supposed to warm up over the next several days, so that’ll probably be an end to the snow—THIS snow, anyway. You’ll think I’m crazy, but I LOVE to shovel snow. It’s great exercise.
As I say, it’s dark today, but then again, that’s to be expected; it’s getting close to mid-winter, the shortest day of the year. Darkness and light are common themes for this time of the year: light in the darkness, the coming of light. There’s always that star at the top of many Christmas trees.
As we go down the road to Christmas, we pass through the liturgical season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. “Advent” comes to us from Latin “adventus” ‘coming’. So it’s a season of looking forward to COMING—the coming of light and the coming of Jesus—who is often referred to as light (e.g., see the first chapter of John’s gospel). But we look forward to TWO “comings”: 1) the FIRST one—the baby in the manger in Bethlehem, and that’s what we normally think of in Advent. But 2) there’s the OTHER Advent, the SECOND Coming, and that’s all over the place in this week’s scripture.
Isaiah 64.1-9. This is the prayer of a powerless people, a people in great despondency—and yet they have boundless trust in God. This is not new. In every age known to humanity there has been some great calamity, something people are despondent over. What about OUR age? Sexism, racism, age-ism—you name it—and there’s great despondency over the fact that, despite what we know, people continue to do things which destroy our world. And then, of course, there’s the latest calamity: COVID-19.
The first three verses of the Isaiah reading are a petition: “ … tear open the heavens and come down”. God is powerful enough to “tear open the heavens” and to make the mountains, some of the most mighty things on earth, tremble (does this sound like the beginning of today’s gospel reading?). If God is that strong, surely God can make the peoples of the earth behave. And this God who is so mighty “works for those who wait for him,” i.e., those who trust in God.
The remainder of the passage is a turn in direction. Now the people confess: though they want God to put things right, they, themselves, are not blameless. They confess that and ask for three things: don’t be angry, don’t hold it against us, and remember that we’re your people.
Psalm 80.1-7. Here again, we have the cry of a people in need, though it’s not specific. What’s the great need? Whatever it is, the petitions are “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” and “Restore us, O God”.
We’ve just looked at the issue of God’s might. The people also believe that God is a God of compassion, so they’re asking sincerely, i.e., they believe that God CAN do that, and they believe that God WILL do that.
That refrain occurs three times in the psalm: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” What does it feel like when God’s face shines? Like the sun on a warm summer afternoon?
1 Corinthians 1.3-9. We live in a world which some call “already-not yet,” a time when Jesus has already been revealed to us in his first coming, but not yet revealed in his second coming. For many, this is a very difficult time because we live in a social/economic system where some oppress and destroy others—even if we live in the “free world”. Those who are caught in this mess are heartened by the thought of the Second Coming, a time when Jesus will come again and put things right.
The church in Corinth had many talented people—in fact, they were a bit rambunctious about it, competing over who was the most gifted. You’d think they were the last people in the world who’d be calling out to God for help; the “haves” don’t need help, do they?
Ah, but maybe they do. People who are gifted need to use their gifts not only for themselves, but for others, and that may be why they need to “call out to God for help”. Do they need to ask God to give them a generous heart, a heart to do works of compassion? Paul offers them this assurance: “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Even the “haves” (especially the “haves”?) need help. “ … on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” —the Second Coming—how will they fare?
Mark 13.24-37. This is one of those readings. It’s small—only fourteen verses—but it’s big. The only way to get some of it is to go back and read the chapter—Chapter 13—from the beginning.
After Jesus’ conflicts with the religious authorities in the Temple, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the Temple, and some of the disciples say, “Wow, Teacher, will you look at this! This building is awesome!” Jesus pours some cold water on their enthusiasm. “You see all of this? It’ll all be torn down and left a pile of rubble.”
Needless to say, the disciples are dumbstruck. The group goes across to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus continues the conversation. Jesus tells them more bad news; lots of bad things are going to happen. The disciples, understandably, want to know when. “When will all this be?” I’m just going to leave it there and go on to today’s reading—verses 24 to 37—but we’ll need to come back to it.
“But in those days, after that suffering ….” “Those days” What days? The days Jesus was talking about earlier in the chapter? Probably not. The “but” used in this sentence in the Greek original of Mark’s gospel is what’s known as the “adversative but”. It starts a new topic and breaks away from the previous topic. “Those days” was also a common way of referring in the Hebrew Scriptures to “the Day of the Lord”, the time when the Lord would come and set things straight. In essence, that’s what the writers referred to, for example, in this week’s Isaiah reading and Psalm 80. As well, in the 1 Corinthians reading, that’s what Paul is referring to when he says, “… so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So when Jesus says, “But in those days, after that suffering,” it’s “those days” ‘the Day of the Lord’ and “after that suffering,” which is the suffering he was talking about earlier in the chapter. The “BUT” separates the two concepts.
Then verses 24b-26 describe the cosmic signs of the coming, just as we’ve already seen in Isaiah 64.1-2, and Psalm 80.1b-2a echoes that. As we just said, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9 echoes the SENTIMENT, but without the cosmic language.
Then the Son of Man, Jesus, will come in the clouds with great glory and will send his angels to bring back his elect—those who are faithful to him—from all of heaven and earth.
Now, having resisted answering the question “When?”, Jesus now tells a short parable about a fig tree. In sum, when the fig tree leafs out, you know summer is coming. That’s in answer to the original question about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. So he’s saying, “That one’s easy. The signs are all there, and you can read them.” It will happen before “this generation” dies, i.e., within the next forty years—and it did—in 70 CE.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” There it is again, that “but”. This is a whole different story. NOW we’re talking about “that day”—the same as “those days”, the “Day of the Lord”. Now he adds, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”, and he tells one last little parable to illustrate his point. It’s a story about a man who goes away on a journey—here we go again—and he gives each of his slaves a job to do. The Greek original is even more specific than that; it’s not just “each with his work”, it’s αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐξουσίαν “autou tēn exousian ‘to each his task’, i.e., an ASSIGNED task. We, as slaves of God, each have an assigned task, related to the gifts God has given us; we’re meant to use them for what we do in our life.
How does this get to the answer of “when will this happen”? It doesn’t, and that’s just the point. We simply don’t know, so it’s important that we each do “our task” so as to be ready for the return of the Master—on the Day of the Lord, the Second Coming. If we’re “asleep”, we’re not doing our task; hence the command, “Keep awake.”
So what is our task? Well, we just looked at that last week. It was part of the learning of the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations. We are to use our gifts to perform acts of compassion, out of the goodness of our hearts. Or you might prefer this one from the prophet Micah 6.6-8:
6 With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?